Sermon: “Share in Christ's Baptism”

21 March 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2010

“Share in Christ's Baptism”

Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-11

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

This is a great story about Mary of Bethany. She anoints the feet of Jesus with a pound of perfume, and wipes them with her hair.  So, first of all, this is a story of extravagant love and extravagant generosity.  As I said last week, in the story of “The Foolish Father” – or “The Prodigal Son, as we most often name it – God’s love and generosity are poured out on us with great extravagance.  Perhaps that extravagance seems to us a little unnecessary, over-the-top, embarrassing – foolish even.  But Jesus affirms those of us who respond to God’s extravagant generosity with outpourings of praise, joy, and extravagant love and generosity in return.  And that’s exactly what he does here with Mary of Bethany – as he sides with her against the very pragmatic criticism that Judas offers.  Jesus praises Mary for giving her “all” to him.  And he challenges us to do the same, when we accept his invitation to share in his baptism.

So before we judge Judas too harshly – which is easy to do with our 20-20 Bible hindsight and our knowledge that he will be the one to betray Jesus – let’s try to see Mary and Judas through the eyes of the rest of the disciples that day. Jesus and his followers were gathering at their usual hideout in Bethany, in the hills of Judea an hour’s walk outside the walls of Jerusalem, where Jesus was preaching and teaching every day, and making more than a few enemies among the religious and political rulers of that city.  Jesus was stirring up ordinary people to see their world in a new way, through the eyes of God – and he was prepared to die for his beliefs.  Several of Jesus’s followers, like Judas, were young men ready for Jesus to lead a revolution to bring about the coming day of the Lord’s judgment.  They were men of action.  They were hard-working, practical men.

Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and their brother Lazarus, is perhaps best known as a listener to Jesus – in the famous story in Luke 10, Mary sits so long listening at the feet of Jesus, Martha complains that she isn’t getting up to help serve their guests.  But there too, Jesus comes to Mary’s defense, saying “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  Just as in today’s lesson, Mary is criticized for some very practical reasons, but Jesus defends her. Why does Jesus keep holding Mary up to us as an example?  After all, Jesus often talks about feeding the poor, and being a servant in the service of others.  Why does he keep taking Mary’s side?

It’s easy to demonize Judas, as I said earlier.  But before we’re too hard on Judas, let’s remember that he was the group’s treasurer – and as you may remember, they held their money collectively.  It was his job to be practical and to think about how they were spending scarce funds, which is a hard job, as anyone who’s been worrying about our own church budget this time of year will tell you.  It probably was a later editor who added the part about Judas not caring about the poor, and being a thief.  The disciples obviously didn’t know Judas was a traitor or a thief, or they wouldn’t have let him be their treasurer.  In this story, they probably were as shocked as Judas at what Mary was doing.  They probably agreed with Judas about the unbelievable excess of female emotion and their resources wasted on Jesus’s feet. 

As you may know from the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet at the Last Supper, it was a point of hospitality to have a servant wash the feet of guests who came to dinner.  People walked around in sandals on dusty roads.  They had dirty feet.  But it would NOT have been typical to dry feet with a woman’s hair.  Remember, when Jesus washed the feet, he tied a towel at his waist – as servants would do.  Wiping feet with hair was an act of great intimacy and, in a culture where women’s heads are veiled because seeing their hair is supposed to be too sexually provocative, it would have seemed wildly inappropriate.  Also, a wealthy host might also provide a small amount of some creams or ointments for callused heels or to soothe blisters.  But to use one full POUND of pure nard on one man’s feet, was much more than “costly.”  It was excessive in the extreme. Plus, think about it – pure perfume!  The smell alone had to have been overpowering, sickly sweet.  And expensive?  When Judas says it should have been sold and the 300 denarii given to the poor, he’s not talking about $300 worth.  Since a denarius was a full day’s wage for a workman, we’re talking about almost a full year’s salary – something more like $30,000.

Besides that, nard was to them the smell of death, since this was being saved, as Jesus says, for his funeral.  It was enough to anoint a whole body, as it was wrapped in linen cloths for burial. So Mary’s premature grief meant she was giving in to the version of the future Jesus had been describing – that he would go, and go willingly, to be arrested and crucified – a horrific execution that typically denied the grieving family the chance to claim the body and anoint it properly for a decent burial.  She was doing in advance what she expected she would not have a chance to do later.  So she was not holding back anything, but giving her all – literally throwing herself, and her life’s savings, on Jesus’s feet, as for the last time.  To those of us who are holding back, like Judas, that public display of affection was inappropriate, excessive, and embarrassing.

It made me wonder: What are we holding back in our relationship with Christ?  Are we really willing to share in his baptism and to celebrate his victory on the cross?  What if that means taking a real risk, giving more of ourselves than we had expected?

I want to close with a story about a day when I realized I had been holding back in my own faith.  It was a sunny spring afternoon when I was in college, hanging out with one of my best friends, Sophie, on her back stoop.  We were trying our best to study for midterms, when really we were longing to jump up and roll with my friend’s dog and her adopted stray kitten in the new grass.  And of course, to make it worse, my friend’s brother Steve stopped by to distract us.  Sophie and Steve were raised in a Catholic family, but Steve was now an atheist and one of his favorite things was provoking arguments with me, because he knew I was a Christian.  Sophie was neo-pagan studying psychology, but she was my friend and a lot more open-minded.

And so, on this day, Steve plunked down next to me and fired off his question:  “There are just two kinds of people,” he said, “and you can tell which kind they are just by taking them to the beach.  Some can’t wait to run into the surf and get wet, and others want to just sit on the sand and read a book.  Which kind are you, Bryn?”  Knowing Steve, it had to be a trick question, so I said, “It depends.”  He had long hair and played in a rock band, and this was the ‘70s, so I figured he was about to offer me drugs.  “Depends on what?” he said.  And before he could answer, without even looking up from her book, Sophie said, “Oh give her a break, Steve, she can’t help it.  She’s not going in the water.  She’s a Christian.  And she’s right there in front of you, reading a book.” 

So, to make a long story short, that’s how I learned to water ski, in the Atlantic Ocean.  I did it for Jesus – to prove to a couple of atheists that Christians aren’t cowards.  But it’s also how I learned that if I had just a little more faith, I could – if not actually walk on water – then stand up on water and go really fast. It’s how I learned that being a Christian might actually require me to stop playing it so safe.  It’s when I realized that being a Christian might mean I’d have to fall down and get really wet, or be laughed at, or maybe even hurt or killed.  It’s when I learned what Jesus meant when he called us to share in his baptism.  I learned to open my mouth and risk sharing my faith story, which is something many of our members have been doing this Lent.  To share in Christ’s baptism means we might have to get more than our feet wet.  Like Mary of Bethany, we are called to pour our whole lives out for Christ and for the world God loves.

When Christ calls us to share in his baptism and to join him in his passion and victory – we are called to lose our lives in him, to give our lives in order to find life, to pour our lives out in the service of others –all of which may be a little scary and messy and expensive.  It comes with no small risk.  But it also means we get to be very close to Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven, and to share the joy of celebrating what Jesus called “fullness of life.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

John 12:1-11

12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii 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 kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.


The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith*

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations by your righteous will
declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, your presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.  Amen.

* The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith was adopted in 1959 by General Synod – not as a binding creed or test of faith, serving as a doctrinal requirement for membership in the church, but rather as testimony to be shared in worship.  This doxological Statement of Faith was authorized by the Executive Council in 1981.


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