First Congregational Church
March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent
"Broken Vessel Restored"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Although it seems that Christmas was just a few weeks ago, here we are on the first Sunday of Lent. If nothing else, people perhaps most often associate this time with “giving something up.” My mentor, Cindy Shepherd, would give up coffee, caffeine, chocolate and sugar for lent. I’ve always secretly wondered if she was aiming to become a martyr.
A lot of folks still “give up” something for Lent - to give themselves an opportunity to focus more on God. So I’ve made some resolutions for Lent, too. I’ve decided to give the past tense for Lend. I also decided I’m tired of speaking the English language correctly, so I’m giving it up for Borrowed. But then I decided to give up procrastination - next Lent.
Then, I decided to give up my New Years Resolution. 4 and a half days into Lent and I still haven’t bragged! After that, I tried giving up self-deprivation for Lent, but I wasn’t very good at it.
As goofy as all those “decisions” were, so may seem the decision to do a Lenten sermon series on brokenness. From broken hearts to compression fractures to falling on your knee to rotator cuff pain from shoveling, I’m sure there are more than a few folks that are wondering just how cold it got over there in Minnesota. I don’t know if it makes matters any “better,” but I’ve had this series tucked away longer than any planning for a sabbatical took place.
The thing is, regardless of the time of year, we are surrounded by brokenness. We live in a world of brokenness. And maybe, too often, we think of the whole realm of brokenness as a bad thing. That perception is certainly a part of the context of this morning’s scripture passage.
Mark 14:1-9 NIV
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Thank you, Jim. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never really thought about nard before. Lard: yes. Nard: no. You have to be careful looking up nard. Some internet sites will tell you it stands for North American Restoration Dry Cleaners and other sites tell you it is an acronym for the National Association of Rudimental Drummers.
Biblical nard comes from a plant called spikenard, a flowering plant from the Himalayan mountains - a good three months journey away from Jerusalem. The roots and rhizomes of the plant are crushed and steamed into a pale, golden liquid; a profound and complex aroma; sweet, spicy, and musky. Perfumers of the time were a mysterious bunch who kept their trade secrets to themselves. So there’s no wonder that nard was “costly.” It was used in burial preparations, along with other perfumed and oil substances. When King Tut’s tomb was opened, there was a jar that had a still pungent unguent, some 3500 years later.
But how did she know? Had she “heard” what Jesus had said something about his impending death? The disciples didn’t seem to listen - or get it - or pay attention. Part of the beauty of this account is the woman - however she heard or felt the urge - acting on what her heart or gut told her to do. Sometimes we think we hear God asking us to do thus and such, but we resist what may seem foolish - if not to others - at least to ourselves. Is God calling you - us - to break a symbolically expensive jar of perfume for what may seem an illogical reason?
In April 2000, John, near Pittsburgh, posted a devotional about this woman that may give us some insight into why this woman poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. Our passage doesn’t say that she’s “broken” or had some reason for sorrow, but his piece may allow any of us to stand in her sandals.
“He - Jesus - can tell by their expressions that they are both shocked and disgusted at the same time. They’ve got that “How dare you!” look about them but he doesn’t turn to see who just walked into the room. He can tell by their reaction that it’s someone who needs him. He’s pretty much accustomed to these kinds of interruptions but he knows that she must make the first move. So he simply continues to recline at the table, leaning on his right elbow, feet tucked behind him. He picks up a piece of bread and then he hears her.
Finding no words to dismiss the embarrassing silence she just begins to sob. The guests roll their eyes while she just stands there, staring through her watery vision at Jesus’ feet. Tears drop on the dirt and darken the floor like raindrops on a dry path. And little does she know that it is her own path of salvation that she is preparing. When she notices that her tears have also been falling on his feet, shamefully she kneels down and begins to wipe them dry with her hair. Her heart is in control of this moment and not her head, and her heart is confessing: “I thought I was strong. I thought I didn’t need anyone. I tried to convince myself that they weren’t using me, that I was using them. I know that what I have been doing is wrong. I’m so tired. I’m so weary. Jesus, I’m so broken, but I’m yours.” When his feet are dry she pours expensive perfume on them, wipes her cheeks with the sleeve of her dress and sits there quietly crying.
Jesus breaks the silence and speaks to his host, “Simon, I know who this woman is and I know what she does, but is she too dirty to touch God? Can’t you hear her heart? Don’t her tears tell you anything? I tell you, her many sins are forgiven – for she loves much. But whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.”
Finally, turning around he cradles her face in his hands and looks her in the eyes. Smiling at her he speaks the absolution: “Woman, your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” She touches his hands touching her face and begins to smile as she gets up to leave. Releasing his hands she turns toward the door and notices that it’s still open. She walks into the street and turns back to close the door behind her but something deep within her speaks: “Leave it open.””
As many times as I’ve heard this passage, this may have been the first time that I really “heard” that they were at Simon the Leper’s house. Which raises a whole host of more unanswerable questions:
Weren’t lepers supposed to live out in the wildernesses, away from people? Weren’t they supposed to “announce” themselves as “unclean” if they were going through a city or town? How did this particular person - so afflicted - come to have a home? Could he have been one of the individuals that Jesus had cured in his career?
Regardless of the questions, there was Jesus, eating with this “broken” leper - and who knows how many others. But imagine how Simon the Leper felt, having Jesus come over for some grilled cheese and tomato soup - or at least some hummus and pita bread? You’ve got to wonder, just how “normal” Simon felt that night - just having someone at his home for dinner, forget that it happened to be the Messiah. There was Simon, entertaining, just like “normal” people! How often do we miss the fact that even the little things we do, can help another person feel “normal - even though normal is only a setting on the washing machine?” Just our mere presence can help rebuild brokenness in ways beyond our ken.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I never really thought about the fact that after the woman had poured the nard on Jesus’ head, and the other guests were grumping because of the “wasted” expense, we don’t have any evidence that Simon the Leper said anything. In fact, his silence seems to throw him into the same group as the grumpers and gripers. Does Simon realize that his silence - or complaining with the others - turns himself into the worst kind of broken soul - one who cannot - will not - offer restoration to another broken soul? Is he allowing his new “normal” at having Jesus for dinner to make him into a self-righteous hypocrite?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I need a God to forgive and restore me when I’m the one pointing my finger at someone else, failing to recognize our common need for a redeemer. The beauty of Lent - or Lend - or Borrowing - is that we have the opportunity to examine our own questions, motives and actions, being reminded that we have already been restored because Christ put us together when he went to the cross.
We have this season, too, to be reminded that the alabaster jar had to be broken to “spend” something incredibly valuable. If Christ had not been “spent”, the cost of God’s grace and mercy would not be nearly so great. For a person to give up their life - for us - for you - is indeed, an expensive gift of love that has already been lavished on all of us. It, therefore, seems only right to humble our hearts in prayer before the very one who made our lives so valuable.
God of grace and God of glory, we are grateful that you so loved each of us, even in our faults and warts, that you desired our wholeness above your claim on your son. We are greatly thankful that you choose to redeem us and restore us, rather than throwing us away or ignoring us. Thank you for this season that allows us to look long at what you value, and that we see ourselves in that scene. For these gifts and all your blessings, all your restored vessels say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.