“A New Thing”
April 3rd, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
One of my Lenten practices this year has been reading a book by James C. Howell on hymns. He takes the interesting choice of looking not at hymns as a whole, but saying “What is your favorite line?” in a hymn. As this sermon began to craft itself in my brain, lines of hymns kept coming to mind and wouldn’t stay in the background. I share them with you.
In Isaiah, God says, “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Paul says to the Corinthian church “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”
It is something I want to believe. When faced with the ugly power of the old, the idea of new is a source of hope, a breath of fresh air. But just like the beautiful daffodils in my front garden last week, newness is so often bowed low by the cold winds of those who fear new. Is that why God often speaks of doing a new thing? That we need to hear again and again and again that God will not stop until the new overcomes the old, and what is meant to be triumphs over what slinks up in untended patches of soil.
Later in our service the choir will sing Heather Sorenson’s soaring song, “I will do a new thing.” And it ends, “thus says the Lord.” Thank God. Thank goodness our God will not stop, our God will not rest, our God will keep doing a new thing, until we stop doing the old thing and catch up. A line from the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” captures this abiding faith in God’s new way, and the sureness of where it will lead: “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.”
What is this new thing God is doing? Well it has something to do with that arms open-wide that we saw in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It has something to do with the insistence of God to look out for the last and the least. It has something to do with Jesus being surrounded not by the brightest and the best, but by those who everyone else pushed to the sideline. And that includes women.
The anointing story we read this morning is found in all four gospels, an indication that it was remembered, it burned its way into the stories that were told about Jesus, probably because, once again, it tells of someone doing something that was “a new way.” We have read the story from the gospel of John, and of the gospels, only John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, you know, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus to learn rather than do the usual woman’s work (and got told she had chosen the better portion), Mary who had just experienced the resurrection of her brother, even though he had been in the tomb for three days. That is the Mary we are talking about.
They are at dinner and Mary leaves off providing food, she leaves off just sitting at his feet basking in his wisdom, she leaves the room and goes and gets a large jar of costly ointment. The Bible says a pound—so this is not the small jar of hand or face cream, this was intended for full body use—like when you anointed a body for burial, to make the aroma around the beloved sweet instead of something where you have to cover your face from the stench. And she cracks open the jar.
Fragrance escapes into the room, overpowering the smells of dinner, and what must have been the body odor of travelers fresh off the road, and the mix of dirt and thatch and animals and cooking fires. Everyone would have known that fragrance, reminding them of their own beloveds, laid out, wrapped, anointed, buried. You saved up to have the best for the final dressing of your loved ones. It was an extravagance you planned for.
But Jesus wasn’t dead, not yet. And Lazarus had been raised. So why was Mary bringing all that to mind. No one wanted to think about what was going to happen when Jesus went into Jerusalem. And there were better ways to celebrate that Lazarus was alive and at table with them.
Mary, kneels and spreads the expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet, leaning close, smoothing the substance into his feet with her hair—feet that would have been worn with the journey, feet that might have been calloused with walking around the countryside, feet that had the dirt of the road ingrained into the pores, feet that like other feet, enjoyed being cleaned and massaged and pampered.
The extravagance of her gesture prompts Judas’ criticism of her. “It could have been used for the poor.” (Though our narrator says that Judas wasn’t really thinking of the poor but of the fact that HE could have skimmed money from such a bountiful gift.) But Jesus defends Mary, and we, in hindsight, see the gesture as a precursor of God’s own extravagance on the cross, an extravagance of love that we often can’t comprehend. Because extravagance, by it very definition, is more than enough, bigger than need, and we are often counselled to be small.
The hymn line “You are the treasure that I seek” from the hymn “You are my strength when I am weak” says it all. Mary is willing to give Jesus the first fruits, the best of what she has, the expensive nard saved for the holiest of occasions, because Jesus was her treasure. All else paled in comparison. Yes, she was anointing him before the fact. Yes, it was all wrapped up together—her gush of thanks for the gift back of her brother, the tears of joy that she had been accepted as one of those sitting at his feet, the worry and fear of what was to come, the desire to show how much she loved him. “You are the treasure that I seek,” you are my all in all.
I can’t get the image of hair out of my mind—as Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus and pours costly, fragrant oil on his feet, and washes them with her hair—hair a symbol of beauty and sexuality, so that many cultures have required women to cover their hair with wigs, or hajibs, or veils, or wraps. The Oscars chatter this week hasn’t just been about violence or ill-conceived “jokes” but also about hair—the loss of it, which isn’t far from talking about the texture of hair, the way we wear our hair, the color of our hair.
The fact that Mary has her hair out of whatever covered it, and I imagine it unbraided, taken down, to be able to cover his feet, and cover her face, and soak up her tears, and spread the nard into every nook and cranny of Jesus’ feet. It is a beautiful image. It also is an extremely intimate gesture. As intimate as Jesus kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper.
And what wells up in my brain is the refrain using the Ghanaian folk melody “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love;” show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you. What would it mean if we showed such extravagance to all the neighbors we have from God? Not just neighbors near us, but neighbors far away. Not just neighbors like us, but neighbors who are not like us. Not just Christian neighbors, but all the neighbors we have from God. That kind of love is not stingy or small. That kind of love, the kind of love we ask God to fill us with, can only be called extravagant.
But in case we get lost in the exuberant and flashy actions of Mary, we need to consider Martha. It says that she “served” and we assume it means that she put food on the table, she made sure the house was prepared for guests, she took care of all the 101 things that can and do go wrong when you are hosting others. The word John uses for this “serving” of Martha is diakoneo—the word from which we get our word “deacon.” It is interesting to note that usually when this word is used (and especially when it is used about men) the translation is “ministering.”
In thinking about this new thing that God proclaims God does in our world—might we be open to see all sorts of ministering happening around Jesus. Let us not think that Mary was an exception. Jesus’s followers were both men and women, and the role women played in supporting Jesus and the early church is often downplayed. But God is doing a new thing. And we can celebrate all of us, all of the ways in which to be extravagant with one another, all the ways we can show our love, all the ways that we can put our treasure at the center of our hearts, all the ways to face the rising sun with determination, sure that the victory is won.
I invite you to find yourself in the verses of the Brian Wren hymn called “Woman in the Night” that chronicles a few of the women who surrounded Jesus throughout his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. They represent all of us. Truly God is doing a new thing.
Woman in the night, spent from giving birth,
Guard our precious light; peace is on the earth.
Woman in the crowd, creeping up behind,
Touching is allowed: seek and you will find!
Woman at the well, question the Messiah;
Find your friends and tell; drink your heart’s desire!
Woman at the feast, let the righteous stare;
Come and go in peace; love him with your hair!
Woman in the house, nurtured to be meek,
Leave your second place, listen, think, and speak!
Women on the road, from your sickness freed,
Witness and provide, joining word and deed;
Women on the hill, stand when men have fled;
Christ needs loving still, though your hope is dead.
Women in the dawn, care and spices bring,
Earliest to mourn, earliest to sing!
As we gather at God’s table, a place where we get just a taste of the overflowing banquet we have been promised, may we give thanks for all those who the world does not see, all those who minister and serve in lowly estate, all those who get rebuked for being so lavish with their giving. And God, the treasure that we seek, help us to be part of your new thing, each and every day, by living and loving and sharing just like you.
May it be so. Amen and Amen.